Details Of The Bin Laden Raid, Recounted By The SEALs

Steve Inskeep talks with Nicholas Schmidle about his upcoming article in The New Yorker on the Osama bin Laden raid. It's a detailed account of the planning for the operation — much of the information has not been previously disclosed — and a play by play of the night the al-Qaida leader was killed. The account is based on the recollections of the Navy SEAL members who participated in the raid.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On the evening of May 1st, U.S. Navy SEALs entered Pakistani airspace in two Blackhawk helicopters. Their destination was the city of Abbottabad, where according to intelligence gathered by the CIA, Osama bin Laden was probably living. That raid and the subsequent killing of bin Laden dominated the news cycle for several weeks. For security reasons we still don't know the names of those Navy SEALs, but many of them spoke with reporter Nicholas Schmidle. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Schmidle used information from others who had debriefed the SEALs; he did not speak with them himself.]

Mr. NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE (Reporter): This was just one of thousands of missions that they'd conduct on a nightly basis in Afghanistan, and previously in Iraq. They see this as being almost the culmination of that nightly rehearsal on this one special operation. Some guy mentioned to me that it was like mowing the lawn.

INSKEEP: And in the latest issue of the New Yorker, Schmidle describes exactly what the SEALs did.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: The first Blackhawk is carrying 12 SEALs. The plan for the first Blackhawk is that it's going to hover over the inner courtyard, right outside of where bin Laden's home was, and all 12 are going to descend on fast ropes into the compound. Then that helicopter was going to pull around and land outside the compound.

INSKEEP: So that was the first helicopter. There was another helicopter.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: The second helicopter was carrying 11 SEALs, one translator, and a dog named Cairo, a Belgian Malinois. And its plan was that it was going to land in the northeast corner of the compound, it was going to drop four SEALs, the translator, and the dog. Then that helicopter was going to lift up and it was going to fly and hover above the third floor of the compound, which is where they believed bin Laden was living. Those SEALs were going to descend on a fast rope onto the top of the compound.

INSKEEP: So that was the plan. What happened?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Well, when the first helicopter pulled over the compound, the pilot pulled into a high hover and began descending, getting to that ideal point where they would throw the two fast ropes out of either door and the 12 SEALs would go sliding down the fast ropes into the courtyard.

Well, when he began doing that, there was this aerodynamic phenomenon that happened, called settling with power, in which the helicopter becomes almost a hostage to its own rotor wash, it begins descending inside of its own rotor wash and the pilot is unable to lift the helicopter. And so at this moment the pilot realized that he was going to crash and it was a question of whether he was going to crash on the helicopter's side and risk casualties or whether he was going to be able to get the helicopter down in a way that did not risk any damage to the team itself.

INSKEEP: Whether it would be a crash or what you'd call a hard landing.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So he tried for the hard landing by doing what?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: He tried for the hard landing by aiming for an animal pen in the western portion of the compound, and as he was making his way over there, the tail of the helicopter began swinging around and then it clipped the top of the wall. And as it did that, the helicopter sort of fell forward and the pilot drove the nose of the helicopter into the mud and sort of - the helicopter stuck at that angle.

There was about a minute that passed in which everyone who was in these various command stations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Pentagon, the CIA headquarters, and the White House were holding their breath waiting for some communication that these guys were OK.

INSKEEP: Northeast corner of the compound, the other helicopter dropped its dozen people not exactly according to plan, but close enough.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Right.

INSKEEP: With the dog.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Right.

INSKEEP: And so then what happened?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Four of the SEALs, the translator, and the dog were responsible for establishing a security cordon around the house. Meanwhile the seven from the second Blackhawk, they began making their way into the compound from the northeast corner, blasting through metal gates and making their way into the house itself.

INSKEEP: What happened inside?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: The teams met up on the first floor after a few minutes. The first team had had already killed bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti, and had killed Kuwaiti's brother and his wife.

INSKEEP: These were the guys from the helicopter that crash-landed...

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Exactly. So, each of these SEALs are carrying booklets that have pictures and some brief biographical details about everyone who is believed to be in the compound. And according to these booklets, there were five adult males in the house, the courier, the courier's brother, bin Laden, and bin Laden's two sons. One of his sons, Hamza, turned out not to be in the house.

So according to these booklets, after they had killed Kuwaiti and Kuwaiti's brother, there were still two men in the house. So they broke into three-man fire teams and began clearing the rooms. And to get from the first floor to the second floor, there was something that led them to believe that the higher they went in the house, the value of the targets, if you will, would be getting higher. And that was that there were metal cages blocking the access from the first floor to the second floor on the stairwell.

INSKEEP: Like metal gates...

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Exactly. So they blasted through the metal gate and they began making their way from the first floor to the second floor when Khalid, Osama's 23-year-old son, appeared at the top of the stairs and began firing down the stairs at them. So three men killed Khalid, moved him - sort of stepped past him; another team flowed past. So as each of them are engaging with the target, then the other team flows past in this process of clearing the house. So that was on the second floor.

And then as they moved from there, they blasted through another gate and moved to the third floor, where they believed bin Laden was living.

INSKEEP: And what did they find?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Well, as they got to the top of the third floor, they looked to the right and they saw bin Laden sticking his head out of the door. All of this is appearing through their night vision goggles.

INSKEEP: The lights are out inside the house.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: The lights are out inside the house. So they're pixilated green images. They look down the hall and they see this tall individual, very rangy with a fist-length beard peeking out of the door, and they're sure that it's bin Laden.

So three of the SEALs begin moving down the stairs in single file. As they push open the door, there are two women standing in front of bin Laden. One of them is his youngest and fifth wife, Amal, and she's sort of hysterical and is screaming at them. And she begins to step towards the first SEAL. And the first SEAL lowers his weapon and shoots her in the calf to disable her, and then proceeds to grab both of the women, wrap them in a bear hug and take them to the side of the room.

INSKEEP: Why did he grab them and take them in a bear hug?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Because the assumption was that they could be wearing suicide vests. And so the idea was that if he grabbed them, bear hugged them, put his back to his colleagues - that if the women exploded, he would absorb the blasts, but the second shooter would still be able to kill bin Laden.

INSKEEP: Meaning that he would guarantee the success of the mission by having himself killed if they had actually been wearing suicide vests.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: And of course, he knew that when he was doing that.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: He pushes them to the side, there's not an explosion. They weren't wearing suicide vests.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Right.

INSKEEP: Bin Laden is standing there, the SEALs are standing there.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Right.

INSKEEP: What happens next?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: The second SEAL lowers his - he's using an M4 and he looks through the sights and the M4 has a laser at the end of it, and the laser is pointing right on bin Laden's chest. He shoots bin Laden once in the chest. Bin Laden begins to fall backwards. He shoots again, right above the left eye, and bin Laden falls.

The code name for spotting bin Laden had been Geronimo. So the SEAL, right after bin Laden dropped, he said, for God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo. There was a pause, and then he said Geronimo E.K.I.A., Enemy Killed In Action. And that was it.

INSKEEP: Nicholas Schmidle reconstructed the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in this week's New Yorker magazine. Thanks very much for coming by.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Thanks for having me on.

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Correction Aug. 3, 2011

We incorrectly said that reporter Nicholas Schmidle had spoken with the Navy SEALs who participated in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Schmidle used information from others who had debriefed the SEALs; he did not speak with them himself.

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